In 2012, former U.S. airman Eric S. Popaeko drove from his Illinois home to Reedsburg several times to have sex with a 14-year-old boy he met on the Internet.
In a written confession, Popaeko, who was 19 years old the first time he had sex with the boy, admitted that he knew his victim was underage. He used money and gifts, such as booze, marijuana, and flat screen televisions, to entice the teen.
It was an open and shut case for prosecutors. And this week Popaeko was sentenced to three years in prison for repeatedly sexually assaulting a child, a felony. When he is released, he must serve four years of probation.
Despite the conviction, when Popaeko is fully released back into society, he may not have to register as a sex offender.
Last fall, Popaeko’s attorney hired a psychologist to conduct a psycho-sexual evaluation of his client. The psychologist’s report included the following line: “As for any adjudication decisions related to the criminal nature of his behavior… Mr. Popaeko is a low/moderate risk of future criminal behavior.”
Based on that statement, just days before sentencing, Popaeko’s attorney filed a motion in Sauk County Circuit Court requesting that his client be exempt from complying with the state’s Sex Offender Registry.
During the sentencing hearing this week, Sauk County Circuit Court Judge James Evenson said he would not rule on the matter, although it may be addressed after Popaeko has served his sentence.
“Eric will have to register during the term of his sentence,” Baraboo attorney Stan Woodard said in an email. “Once he completes his sentence the court will take a look at whether he needs to continue.”
Sauk County District Attorney Kevin Calkins said he could not comment on a matter before the court. And a Wisconsin Department of Corrections spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Friday.
U.S. Air Force investigators learned of Popaeko’s relationship with the Reedsburg boy while investigating a sexual assault he allegedly committed in Montana while stationed at a military base. They provided their information to an officer with the Reedsburg Police Department, who eventually referred charges against Popaeko to the district attorney.
Prior to his sentencing this week, two people provided the court with written statements on behalf of Popaeko.
A family member described him as a “good person with a big heart.” She wrote that Popaeko had difficulties growing up as a gay man, and that his judgment was clouded by his relief to have found a partner with similar interests whose family accepted him.
“I know Eric showered them with gifts,” she wrote. “Isn’t that normal when you care about someone? Eric has always been a giver and likes making others happy.”
The complaint against Popaeko also stated that he used money given to him by another sexual partner, a man in his early 60s, to fund his relationship with the boy.
That man also provided a statement to the court in which he described Popaeko as a “hard working, intelligent, dedicated and ambitious young man with a bright future ahead of him.”
The man, who posted $10,000 cash bond to have Popaeko released from jail while his case was pending, said he did not think prison time was appropriate in the case.
As part of his sentence, Popaeko was ordered to undergo further evaluation, counseling and treatment, including a sex offender evaluation. He is to have no contact with the victim, or anyone under age 18 unless it is incidental or approved by his probation agent. He also may not use computers.